For the second consecutive day Saturday, an A’s player expressed his bewilderment at how the team acquired infielder Danny Valencia.
“You don’t really pick up guys like that just out of the blue,” pitcher Sonny Gray said Friday after Valencia homered and singled in Oakland’s 3-1 win over the Astros.
“Surprised we got him,” catcher Stephen Vogt said Saturday after Valencia had two more hits and drove in both A’s runs in a 2-1 win over Houston. “He’s got some pretty outrageous numbers to be DFA’d (designated for assignment).”
The Toronto Blue Jays acquired some big names, pitcher David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, at the trade deadline, and Valencia, who was batting .296 with seven homers for the Blue Jays, became a roster casualty. Toronto designated him for assignment on Aug. 1. Two days later, the A’s claimed him off waivers.
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In three games for the A’s, Valencia is 5 for 12 with three RBIs and has been the offensive star in their back-to-back wins over the Astros. Valencia’s two-run, first-inning double off Houston right-hander Collin McHugh on Saturday provided all the necessary support as Jesse Chavez pitched seven strong innings and the A’s bullpen recorded its first save since July 11.
“(Valencia) has been great,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin, who batted him in the cleanup spot for the second straight game Saturday. “Knocking in runs, and that’s what you want guys in the middle of the order to do. … We want to give him some opportunities here against righties and gave him a big one today, and he came through for us.”
Valencia, a right-handed hitter, was acquired largely to bolster the A’s lineup against left-handed pitching. But he actually has hit right-handers better this season (.284/.304/.557 entering Saturday) than left-handers, and Melvin said before Saturday’s game the A’s want to get Valencia at-bats against both to “find out what we have.”
Melvin later said he was impressed by Valencia’s approach against McHugh on the first-inning double. With runners on first and second and one out, Valencia took two pitches out of the strike zone before driving a slider to the wall in right-center.
Melvin said with McHugh, who relies heavily on movement away from right-handed hitters, “It’s probably going to be a cutter or curveball, he’s trying to get you to roll over a cutter, and (for Valencia) to shoot the ball into the right-center field gap is a nice approach.”
Valencia said he’s typically more of a pull hitter whose extra-base hits wind up in left-center.
“But (McHugh’s) a guy who throws cutters and off-speed over the plate away, so my approach was really to stay that way, and he gave me a pretty good pitch to hit in a hitter’s count. I was able to hit it hard enough to go into the gap and score a couple runs.”
Melvin said Valencia already has earned more at-bats against right-handers. His new teammates, meanwhile, say Valencia has fit easily into the clubhouse. His offensive contributions the past two days, Vogt acknowledged, haven’t hurt.
“He’s had good at-bats, he’s been good in the clubhouse, and he’s been good in the dugout,” Chavez said. “It’s been a (small) sample size, but it’s a sample size we look forward to going forward.”
Valencia’s natural defensive position is third base, where he started Friday. He is less familiar with being a designated hitter, his role Saturday, but said he got some pointers from Billy Butler on how to stay loose between at-bats.
As for hitting fourth, Valencia acknowledged he’s probably not a “prototypical” cleanup hitter but added, “It’s nice to be there.” So far, he’s making a strong impression there on his sixth major-league team.
“Feels good,” Valencia said of his first week with the A’s. “It feels better when you come through to help a team win. It makes it all that much more gratifying.”
Notes – Chavez had pitched so poorly over his previous seven outings, going 1-5 with a 6.23 ERA, that he appeared to be losing his grip on a rotation spot. So his outing Saturday was especially timely – not just his line, but the way he finished it.
After allowing a solo homer to Preston Tucker in the fourth inning, Chavez appeared to be teetering in the fifth, with two Astros on base and two outs, and the A’s bullpen began to stir. But Chavez escaped that inning, then completed two more that Melvin said were “his two best innings.”
“That shows you a little bit about his makeup, from a guy that probably didn’t have his best stuff,” Melvin said. “His best stuff came later, when we needed it.”
Chavez had pointed to mechanical issues in his previous starts that contributed to pitches flattening out but said he felt better Saturday, noting that most of his misses were down in the zone instead of out over the plate. He put two runners on in four of the first five innings and said he was being “a little bit too nibbly” against a free-swinging team like the Astros and corrected that in the later innings.
“Just got to trust your stuff,” Chavez said. “It’s moving the way you want it to; it’s going to where you want it to go. Just trusting in the zone, and that’s what I did for the sixth and seventh innings.”
Vogt said Chavez managed to keep a consistent release point Saturday and threw more four-seam fastballs, which he had gotten away from. Chavez allowed 10 baserunners in his seven innings but navigated the traffic and completed his outing on 106 pitches.
“Credit him – he came out and threw as good as he’s thrown in the last month or so,” said Vogt. “It was nice and refreshing to see him compete and battle, do what he does best.”
▪ Though nominally the A’s closer since Tyler Clippard was traded, Edward Mujica had yet to enter a save situation in that time and had recorded his last save Sept. 21, while pitching for Boston. The A’s, as mentioned, hadn’t recorded a save in nearly a month, and their relief in close games has been a problem all season.
Saturday, though, things unfolded as they were intended. Mujica entered after Drew Pomeranz issued a leadoff walk in the ninth and retired three straight batters, including the pesky Jose Altuve for the final out with pinch runner and potential tying run Jake Marisnick on third base.
“That’s a (type of) game we have not done very well with,” Melvin said. “And you have to resist the thoughts of, ‘Here we go again.’”
Mujica retired Chris Carter and Hank Conger on fairly well-hit fly balls before getting Altuve to ground out on the first pitch to third baseman Brett Lawrie. Altuve is well known as an aggressive hitter, and Mujica said he and Vogt followed the reports in the ninth inning.
“We just try to mix it up with that guy, because he swings at everything, and he swings the bat pretty well,” Mujica said.
Mujica took the loss Thursday night after allowing the go-ahead run in the 10th inning and was 0-3 with a 5.27 ERA in 16 games since returning from the disabled list on June 18.
Vogt said Saturday was “as good as I’ve seen (Mujica) look. He was aggressive; he had tenacity; he had conviction when he was throwing the ball. You could tell something was a little different.”
▪ Coco Crisp left the game after two innings with what the A’s announced as an “illness.” Melvin said Crisp, who scored from first base on Valencia’s first-inning double, felt nauseous and was removed from the game as a precaution.
“He’s had some medication he’s been taking that made him real nauseous to the point he almost felt like he was going to pass out,” Melvin said. “Prudent to get him out.”
Melvin said he believes Crisp will be “good for (Sunday)” and that he plans to start Crisp for the series finale.
▪ The A’s haven’t won three in a row since a five-game winning streak June 20-25. They have a chance to do that and take this series from the first-place Astros on Sunday with right-hander Chris Bassitt (1-4, 2.64) opposing Houston right-hander Mike Fiers (0-0, 10.80). The first pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m.